'Penny Dreadful' Is Bloody Wonderful

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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In its second-season premiere, Penny Dreadful wastes no time living up to its title. As over-the-top as the lurid 19th-century pulp magazines for which it is named, the show manages to squeeze in a werewolf, some ghostly witches, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, and at least one (perhaps two) people possessed by the devil. It’s overripe material that Penny Dreadful manages to render fresh with flash-freeze wit served hot.

Set largely in the grimier sections of a dread-filled London, the Showtime thriller has shifted its emphasis since its first season. Initially, viewers assumed that the main protagonist was Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm Murray, a man obsessed with finding his daughter, Mina. He was aided in his mission by the rather mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and a maverick American with tough-guy skills and a few mysteries of his own (Josh Hartnett). Malcolm called the shots; the other two — plus an always-interesting figure laboring away in his basement lab, Harry Treadaway’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein — followed Malcolm’s lead, more or less.

But as the debut season progressed, its focus changed — slowly, slyly — to Ives. By the end of the season, the central questions were: Was Vanessa possessed by the devil, and had she become more important to Sir Malcolm than his own daughter? 

The Season 2 premiere is a rip-snorter, written, as are all episodes, by creator John Logan. There’s a new subplot for Caliban (Rory Kinnear), Frankenstein’s stitched-and-scarred mannerly monster — he gets a job that suits his distorted image, in a waxworks, one that’s trying to compete for business with what its owner calls “the dreaded Madame Tussaud.” 

An occasional weak spot surfaces in the show — a tendency to treat its florid language as though it contained real nuggets of wisdom, when really it exists simply to nudge the action and chill the blood. Two characters exchange these words: “Do you believe the past can return?” “More than that — it never leaves us. It’s who we are!” Good, campy stuff that might have rolled out of the mouth of Bela Legosi’s Dracula eighty years ago; not so good when played for grand portentousness and used in the trailers as proof that Penny Dreadful can be, like, deep, man. 

With an increased role for Helen McCrory as the devious spiritualist Madame Kali, Penny Dreadful is filling its supply of otherworldly communicators to the brim. At one point, Kali goes into a spittle-spraying rant, promising Satan “I will not fail you!” If that sentiment was tucked into, say, your average death-metal song lyric, I’d be rolling my eyes and turning it off. But in the context of Dreadful, with Vanessa doing more eye-rolling in the throes of possession that I could ever manage, that promise is one that extends to Penny Dreadful’s new season: It seems hell-bent on not failing us for one single second.

You can watch the season premiere for free, right now, on Showtime’s website and on YouTube. Beware: You’ll probably fall under its spell.  

Penny Dreadful airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.